From acclaimed master of suspense fiction Bill Pronzini comes a gripping thriller of loss and redemption in The Other Side of Silence. After Rick Fallon’s marriage collapses following the tragic death of his son, he seeks solace in the tranquility of the Death Valley desert.
After three days of solitude, Rick finds a woman, Casey, who has stranded herself in the desert to die. Her ex-husband has kidnapped her son, Kevin, and all hope in finding him is lost. Rick sees the opportunity to atone for his child’s death, and is sets out to find Casey’s son, no matter the consequences.
In the excerpt below, Rick arrives in Las Vegas, where he believes Kevin is now living. He plots his next moves and painfully revisits memories of his own son.
Keep reading for a scene from The Other Side of Silence, and then download the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.
He didn’t need a map to find the Rest-a-While Motel. The Jeep’s GPS navigator took care of that. North Rancho Drive was off Highway 93 in North Las Vegas, a few miles from the old downtown. It took him longer to get there crosstown from Highway 95 than the GPS estimate because of heavy Saturday afternoon traffic, like bunched-together platelets clogging the creature’s arteries.
Casey had described the motel as nondescript and cut-rate. Right. It took up most of a block between a Denny’s and a strip mall, in a section of small businesses and fast-food joints and discount wedding chapels. Low parallel wings stretched vertically from the street, ten units in each, facing one another across an area of dried-out grass that contained a swimming pool and lanai area. The desert sun had baked a brownish tinge into its off-white paint job. A sign jutting skyward in front claimed that it had Las Vegas’s most inexpensive rates, free HBO. A small sign said VACANCY.
Either the Denny’s parking lot or the strip mall would have been a good place to watch and wait for an expected arrival; easy, then, to walk or drive over to the motel. Number twenty would be one of the rear units, farthest from the street, probably in the wing that backed up against the fenced side yard of an auto-body shop. If the rooms closest to it had been vacant, the sounds of a woman being beaten and raped, even in broad daylight, wouldn’t have carried far or alerted anybody. And Banning, the son of a bitch, had been careful, methodical in his assault: hand around Casey’s throat, panting threats in her ear to stifle her cries.
Fallon went inside the office. Small, but not too small to hold a bank of slot machines and a TV turned on to a sports channel. A chattery air conditioner vied with the voices from a row of talking heads. Behind the short counter, a man wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt had been perched on a stool staring at the talking heads; he stood up when Fallon came in. Middle-aged, slightly built with a noticeable paunch and an advanced case of male-pattern baldness. He pasted on a smile as Fallon stepped up to the counter.
“Help you, sir?”
“I’m looking for a friend of mine.”
“One of our guests?”
“Probably not. But maybe you know him. Calls himself Banning.”
The clerk’s expression was as flat as a concrete wall. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”
“Big, heavyset, tattoo of a fire-breathing dragon on his right wrist.”
“You work every day this week?” Fallon asked.
“Here on the desk every afternoon about this time?”
“That’s right. Why?”
“Then you remember a young blonde woman, Casey Dunbar, who checked in around three o’clock on Wednesday.”
Flicker of something in the man’s eyes. They slanted away from Fallon’s, to a point above his right ear. “I see a lot of faces every day. Can’t remember them all.”
“You gave her number twenty. She didn’t stay long, not much more than an hour.”
“None of my business how long they stay.”
“Banning showed up right after she did, paid her a visit. He didn’t stay long either.”
“So? What’re you getting at?”
“The maid report anything out of the ordinary when she cleaned up afterward?”
“Such as what?”
“Such as bloodstains on the sheets.”
“Bloodstains?” Now there was a little twitch under the clerk’s eye, like a piece of the concrete wall that had worked itself loose. It took him a couple of seconds to smooth it down again. “Listen, Mister—”
“Did the maid report anything like that?”
“No. What’s the idea of all these questions? You’re not a cop or you’d have proved it by now.”
“Let’s just say I’m a friend of Casey Dunbar’s.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know anything about her or this guy Banning or any bloodstains Wednesday afternoon. You satisfied now?”
“Let me have a room for the night,” Fallon said. “Number twenty.”
The clerk was going to refuse; his mouth started to shape the words. But the way Fallon was looking at him changed his mind. “I don’t want any trouble here,” he said.
“Just a room. Twenty’s free, isn’t it?”
“… Yeah, it’s free.”
“Only one night?”
“That’s what I said. How much?”
“Like the sign says—forty-nine ninety-five.”
He took his time producing a registration card, sliding it across the counter. Fallon filled it out, transposing two of the numbers on the Jeep’s license plate. The name he printed on the card was in block letters, easy enough to read upside down.
The clerk read it aloud: “Court Spicer.” The name didn’t seem to mean anything to him.
Fallon laid three twenties on the counter, waited for his change and the room key. Still no eye contact. And no more words except for a by-rote, “Check-out time’s eleven A.M.”
A gamble, playing it this way. If the clerk knew Banning and reported to him, it might flush him out into the open—potentially a quicker way to make contact than trying to track him down on skimpy information. Potentially dangerous, too, but what Fallon had told Casey was true: he wasn’t afraid of men who beat up and raped and extorted money from women. The bigger risk was that if Spicer was still in Vegas, Banning would report to him and he’d spook and take Kevin somewhere else.
A gamble, sure. But this was a gambler’s town, and there was risk no matter what game you played.
Fallon drove to the rear and parked in the space in front of number 20, the last in the row on the far side as he’d guessed. He took his pack in with him. Not much of a room: bed, nightstand, dresser, one scarred naugahyde chair, TV bolted to an iron swivel, tiny bathroom with a stall shower. Stifling in there, the smell of Lysol disinfectant nearly overpowering; the room likely hadn’t been rented since Wednesday. You’d need a UV fluorescein detector to find the blood traces in here now.
He put the air conditioner on low, drew the drapes over the single window, made sure the door was locked. Then he sat on the lumpy bed, opened the phone book he found in a nightstand drawer. The Hot Licks Club and Casino was on Flamingo, probably in a section close to the Strip.
He debated calling Vernon Young in San Diego. Casey didn’t want Fallon to bail her out, but he didn’t see any reason to wait before getting in touch with her boss. The quicker the money issue was resolved, the better it would be for her. And if resolving it meant loaning her the two thousand, all right—another gamble. But he doubted it would come to that.
AT&T Information gave him the number of Vernon Young Realty. He put in the call, but Vernon Young wasn’t there. The woman who answered said he didn’t come in on weekends. Fallon persuaded her to give out his home number by saying, “It’s important that I talk to him. It has to do with some money he’s owed.” But when he called the home number, an answering machine picked up. He didn’t leave a message.
Fallon hauled his pack onto the bed, unzipped the side pocket where he kept his handgun in its supple leather holster. Ruger .357 Magnum revolver, four-inch barrel. Moderately heavy piece at two and a half pounds. More weapon than he needed for his routine security job at Unidyne and for self-defense against snakes on his desert treks, but he was comfortable with it. The army had taught him to shoot, and he’d been comfortable with the heavier military sidearms. Ranked high in marksmanship in basic training at Fort Benning—good hand-eye coordination, steady aim, easy trigger pull. That was one of the reasons they’d assigned him to MP duty instead of letting him train in electronics as he’d requested. A matter of aptitude, he was told.
He hadn’t much liked the MP duty at first. Mainly it involved routine patrols and handling drunken noncoms and issuing citations. Good at it, though, because he’d applied himself, and somebody at the command level had decided that was where he belonged. He’d spent his entire four-year tour at two stateside bases, Fort Benning and Fort Huachuca. Never left U.S. soil the entire time. Fort Huachuca was the better of the two duties by far because it was in Cochise County, in the southeastern part of Arizona—desert country, the place where he’d first learned that deserts were so much more than arid wastelands.
Everybody always said he was lucky. Not only because of the easy stateside duty, but because his tour had fallen between the times of intense foreign combat—enlisted in ’93 at age eighteen, after Desert Storm, and discharged in ’97 before Nine-Eleven, Afghanistan, Iraq. Maybe he was lucky. Like every other soldier he’d ever known, he’d had no desire to get his ass shot off. And yet he’d come close to reenlisting after the Nine-Eleven terrorist attack in New York City. Would have, if Geena hadn’t talked him out of it for Timmy’s sake.
Geena. Timmy. A whole different life back then.
The Ruger was unloaded; he kept it that way whenever he was in Death Valley, except when he was packing well off the beaten track, because loaded firearms are illegal in national parks. Rattlesnakes aren’t, though, and self-defense was more important than strictly following rules. He swung the gate open, looked at the empty chambers for several seconds, and then closed the gate again and sat holding the weapon in his hand. He’d never fired it anywhere except at the police range, once every other month in competitions with Will Rodriguez that he usually won. Never had occasion to draw it even once in the nine years he’d been with Unidyne. Never drawn it in the wilderness, either. He’d seen his share of sidewinders, but never been surprised by one up close.
He could and would shoot a man if he had to. Army training: if your weapon was loaded and you had reason to draw it, you had to be prepared to fire. But only in self-defense. He’d thrown down on fellow soldiers twice during his MP days, one of them a kid from Tennessee on a violent meth high who was threatening bar patrons with a bayonet. He would’ve fired a kill shot when the kid started to attack him, if his partner hadn’t swung a blindside billy first. The incident had made Fallon think what it would be like to shoot an assailant, shoulder the responsibility for a man’s death. He didn’t like the idea, but he didn’t shy away from it either. Putting yourself into a potentially deadly situation meant being willing to do what you had to do to protect yourself. True as an MP and corporate security officer, true as a civilian.
But he was on thin ice here. His California carry permit was no good in Nevada or any other state, and the gun laws here in Vegas were strict. O. J. Simpson and his buddies had found that out the hard way. He could keep the weapon in his pack, but to be strictly legal it would have to be unloaded. An empty sidearm was worthless except as a bluff threat, and if the bluff were called with a loaded piece, you could end up dead.
So the smart thing to do was not to rely on ordnance at all. Keep the Ruger unloaded and tucked away. He was a big man, strong, he was skilled in hand-to-hand combat methods, he could handle himself against men like Banning and Court Spicer. Sure he could—as long as they weren’t armed with chambered weapons and likewise prepared to use them.
He asked himself, not for the first time and not for long, if he’d bitten off more than he could chew. Could be. But he was already committed. And the doubts dissolved when he thought about what Banning and Spicer had done to Casey, the probably frightened eight-and-a-half-year-old with asthma, the promises he’d made. He’d see it through, one way or another.
The digital clock on the nightstand read 4:33. Lull time in the clubs and casinos, especially on a Saturday. If Eddie Sparrow was still playing at the Hot Licks Club, it wasn’t likely he’d be there until evening. Making the rounds to find out which if any of the casinos used gold and black-ruffled sleeve garters could wait a while, too.
He put the unloaded Ruger away, lowered the pack to the floor, then lay back on the bed. The air conditioner made a clunky humming noise. Outside, kid cries from the pool and traffic noise on North Rancho Drive filtered in faintly.
The kid cries started him thinking about Timmy again. He took out the good, cherished memories as he often did, let them stream like slides across his mind. The boy’s love of baseball and their backyard pitch-and-catch games and the trips to Dodger Stadium. The time they’d gone camping together in the Mojave, just the two of them, and how excited Timmy had been. Their first visit to Death Valley, Geena with them that time, and the wonder in the boy’s eyes as he gazed out at the changing colors of the hills from atop Zabriskie Point. The other places they’d gone and the other things they’d done, and the sound of Timmy’s laughter at cartoon antics and silly kid jokes.
The slide show ended abruptly, as it always did, with the image of a still, pale, bandaged face in a white room, the last image before the middle-of-the-night call from the hospital and the doctor’s solemn voice saying, “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, Mr. Fallon.”
Want to keep reading? Download The Other Side of Silence on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.
Photos: vgm8383 / Flickr; Courtesy of Open Road Media; Roadsidepictures / Flickr